No major league team was hit harder by injuries last year than the Texas Rangers, and for all of the hope the new year and a new season might have brought, the Rangers have quickly found themselves reeling from catastrophic injury news again this year. The latest concerns ace Yu Darvish, who, it was reported Saturday morning, has a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Darvish will seek a second opinion, but Tommy John surgery seems extremely likely and the Rangers expect he will miss at least four months, even if he is able to avoid the season-erasing surgery.
This news comes after a season in which Texas lost starting pitchers Martin Perez to Tommy John surgery, Matt Harrison to career-threatening spinal fusion surgery and Derek Holland for all but a handful of September starts to knee surgery. Darvish was no stranger to the disabled list last year, either, opening the season on the DL due to a stiff neck and spending most of the last two months back on the shelf due to elbow inflammation.
[daily_cut.MLB]Ostensibly, the Rangers are better prepared to endure a major loss in the rotation this year. Holland and Colby Lewis, who was still working his way back from hip surgery last spring, are healthy, and new additions Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler are on hand. However, if there is one pitcher the Rangers can't afford to lose for any significant stretch of time, it's Darvish, who is not only their undisputed ace, but also one of the best pitchers in baseball.
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The runner-up for the American League Cy Young award in 2013, Darvish is the only pitcher with 500 or more innings pitched over the last three years to have struck out more than 10 1/2 men per nine innings. He leads that group with 11.2 K/9 and ranks sixth among those pitchers with a 127 ERA+ over that span (tied with Max Scherzer and trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and Jordan Zimmermann).
To lose that pitcher in the process of attempting to rebound from an AL-worst 67-95 record is devastating for the Rangers' hopes this year. As it was, they were not expected to snap immediately back to contention. Perez and Harrison are out until at least midseason, and big 2014 additions Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo are coming off their own surgeries (Fielder's a far-from-routine fusion of two vertebrae in his neck). The Rangers still have a weakened bullpen and a hole in leftfield (and arguably designated hitter as well), and their best player, Adrian Beltre, is entering his age-36 season. With Darvish now out for at least half of the coming season and more likely all of it, and with the team already having lost Jurickson Profar for a second straight season to shoulder surgery at the end of February, '15 seems likely to look more like '14 than any of the four 90-plus-win seasons that preceded it.
As for Darvish, he has a very difficult decision to make, one that has become increasingly common in recent years. He can have Tommy John surgery now, sacrificing any hope of pitching in 2015 for the hope of being able to return early in '16. Or he can attempt to allow his ligament to heal without surgery in the hope of returning this season, knowing that doing so could result in his losing the '15 and '16 seasons if surgery proves unavoidable but isn't performed until the latter part of this year.
Darvish could compare notes with his countryman Masahiro Tanaka, who opted to forgo surgery in a similar situation last July. Tanaka returned to major league action in late September, has thus far had no issues with his elbow this spring and is expected to make his first start of the spring in the coming week after pitching successfully in simulated game on Saturday. However, every sprained or partially torn ligament is its own unique case. What has thus far worked for Tanaka may not be applicable for Darvish, and there's no guarantee that Tanaka won't ultimately wind up having Tommy John surgery despite his success thus far in avoiding it.
One other factor that could influence Darvish's risk management in this case is his contract. He will be a free agent after the 2017 season, which seems far enough away not to matter. However, if Darvish opts to avoid surgery, it's very possible that further damage to his UCL could occur in one of the final two seasons of his deal, putting him in the difficult position of hitting free agency as an injured or rehabbing 31-year-old pitcher. Having Tommy John surgery now, however, would give him '15 to rehabilitate his elbow and '16 to regain his strength and command on the mound, setting him up for a fully healthy and effective walk year in '17 and huge payday that winter.
In the meantime, the Rangers will let Nick Martinez, Nick Tepesch, Lisalverto Bonilla and late-winter addition Anthony Ranaudo jockey for Darvish's vacated place in the rotation, while rumors will swirl about possible trades for Cole Hamels. Don't hold your breath for that last option, however. Darvish's injury seems far more likely to trigger a rebuild in Texas than to prompt the Rangers to attempt to replace a nearly irreplaceable pitcher.